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Russia arms firms bag Iraq, chase Libya

  |   March 5, 2013 at 1:52 PM
BAGHDAD, March 5 (UPI) -- Iraq's decision to stick to a $4.3 billion arms deal with Russia is good news for Moscow as it strives to restore its Cold War influence in the Middle East and is hustling to sell Libya, another former client also under new management, its latest weapons systems.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Monday the deal with proceed as soon as the country's fractious Parliament approves it as part of the 2013 federal budget.

The deal was signed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in October 2012 -- 10 months after U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq -- during a visit to Moscow.

In November, however, Baghdad said the deal was on hold amid allegations of corruption, although it didn't say who was supposedly involved.

Zebari didn't indicate how the allegations of corruption had been dealt with but said Iraq will make the first down-payment once Parliament signs off on the deal.

The Russian government says the deal, one of the biggest arms sales Moscow has made in several years, involves 40 Mil Mi-28NE all-weather attack helicopters worth $2 billion and 42 Pantsir S-1 short-to-medium range surface-to-air missile systems worth $2.3 billion.

These are vital acquisitions for Iraq's new post-war U.S.-trained armed forces, which until the Russian contract, were dealing largely with the United States for new weapons systems. But the Americans have been reluctant to provide Maliki's regime with helicopter gunships or advanced air-launched missiles.

In large part, this is because of the objections and anxieties of Iraqi minorities, like the Kurds, and neighboring states like Iran and Kuwait, which were attacked by Saddam Hussein before he was toppled in the 2003 U.S. invasion.

Indeed, when it became known that Iraq had problems with the Russian deal, there was widespread speculation that Washington had pressured Maliki to stop buying from Moscow to keep him dependent on the United States.

There were denials all round at the time but the Americans, like the Russians, need hefty exports to keep assembly lines running amid massive cutbacks in domestic defense spending.

However, the suspicions underlined Maliki's anxieties as Iran, Iraq's traditional foe, sought to impose its authority over Iraq, particularly after U.S. troops had departed.

Meantime, Maliki has ordered 36 F-16 Block 52 F-16 combat jets from Lockheed Martin, enough for two squadrons, to form the backbone of Iraq's new air force. Deliveries are to start next year.

Iraqi commanders have said they want 96 F-16s for air defense, although the Fighting Falcons also have formidable offensive capabilities.

Under Saddam, whose actions subjected Iraq to heavy international sanctions, the former Soviet Union was a key arms supplier for Baghdad. Russia backed off after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The Mi-28-Pantsir contract was widely seen as Russia's return to the Middle East arms market after decades of decline.

Following the 2011 downfall of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, a longtime Soviet client, Moscow is aggressively seeking arms sales in the oil-rich North African state.

However, it's going to find it tough competing with the Americans, British and French who helped rebel forces topple Gadhafi and also want to sell his successors big-ticket weaponry.

France's Dassault Aviation, for instance, is pushing its Rafale multi-role combat jet which played a big role in Gadhafi's defeat.

Even before Gadhafi's demise, Russia wrote off Libya's $4.5 billion Soviet-era debt and had contracts to upgrade Libyan missile, armored and air forces. Most of Libya's remain equipped with Soviet-era systems.

Russia continues to provide weapons to the embattled Syrian regime, another Cold War client. But that would almost certainly end if the Damascus regime's overthrown.

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said Feb. 27 he will shortly ask the U.N. Security Council to lift the arms embargo imposed in 2011.

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Monday that Moscow had reservations about that, given the Tripoli government's lack of authority and multiple security threats but he said Russia was ready to help the new Libya "facilitate the possible acquisition of arms."

Russia's RIA Novosti new agency reports Algeria, another Cold War client, is another target, but Algiers has quarreled with Moscow on the quality of its arms and isn't expected to be a major buyer of Russian systems.

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